Did the Egyptians know how to make concrete over 4000 years ago? I was a bit surprised to see a recent article in the New York Times that a scientist has just uncovered evidence that the pyramids are made of concrete. I wasn't so surprised by the idea, though, but rather that this seems to be such a revelation. During the late 1980s, Joseph Davidovits, a French geochemist, was advancing the same theory and he was generally dismissed as a nut case.
We seem to believe that knowledge runs in a straight line. In truth, there are often perceptive insights into any technology that somehow hit a dead end. We know that the Romans used concrete extensively and successfully, only to have the knowledge disappear for a couple thousand years. The modern-day breakthrough came in 1824 when Joseph Aspdin discovered how to make portland cement, a stronger binder and one that could be easily produced almost anywhere.
So here it is nearly 200 years later and a lot of portland cement concrete has been produced but much of it in sort of a clumsy, haphazard way. We are only just beginning to understand the potential of concrete and how to make it truly durable. BASF Admixtures president Mike Shydlowski told me recently that durability is “the holy grail of admixture development.” I would go one step further and say that durability is the key to the concrete industry's future. If we can't guarantee that this stuff won't spall and that the reinforcing steel won't corrode and destroy the concrete, no one will want to use it.
I know that we can make durable concrete and the insight we have today into how to accomplish that has us poised to push this material to a new level. We are chasing perfection and seem tantalizingly close to being able to consistently make concrete that does what we want it to and remains in good condition for 100 years or more. Taking that next step means upgrading the base level of knowledge within the industry. We need to keep pounding in the basics to industry newbies while simultaneously advancing the knowledge at the molecular level, which is where our admixture scientists are working. Education and technology are the keys.
But we should also look back—at what the Egyptians and Romans were doing right, at what Duff Abrams was doing in the early 20th century. There are probably important lessons there that we've forgotten. When the Egyptian engineers built the pyramids, were they asked to provide a 4000-year life? Probably yes, or off with their heads. Today we're only asked to provide a 100 year life and the Pharaoh's executioner isn't standing by, just some lawyers eager to sue. So I guess things haven't changed so much after all!
Editor in Chief